Phoebe Cummings is an artist and maker who deals in the ephemeral. Hand-built from raw clay, her work is designed to decay and ultimately disappear. ‘My pieces are made onsite and, where possible, I’ll recycle raw material. Usually they look at nature and landscape and how that has been interpreted through design, taking decorative arts and historic ceramics and then considering what meaning that might have in the present moment.’
She initially trained at the University of Brighton on the 3D Design and Craft course, where she naturally gravitated towards ceramics. ‘I had a broad start,’ she says, ‘but by the end clay was taking over. I think because it is so varied, and can do so many things. It felt like whatever my ideas were, clay kind of had a way of exploring them.’ Subsequently she did an MA at the Royal College of Art. However, it was when she fell into financial difficulties nine months after graduating in 2005 that she really hit her stride. She began to question both herself and her practice: ‘How am I going to keep doing this? Or should I be doing this? I wanted to make the work that I wanted to make. If I kept it raw then I could keep re-using the same material. Then by building onsite I could do without a studio – the only cost was time. It all started as a practical solution.’
While on one level this might seem a sensible financial decision, on another it was extremely brave. After all, she was eschewing the conventional route of producing objects that are then sold through a shop or gallery. ‘The focus is more on the experience of objects, rather than a permanent thing,’ she says, when asked to characterise her practice. ‘I think it has been freeing. It gives you the chance to start over each time in some ways. But it’s more complicated in terms of selling.’ Instead, she has forged a career through commissions for public museums and galleries, including a residency at the V&A in 2010, where she first saw fragments of the (recently restored) Meissen fountain that has inspired her latest work.
For the prize she is making her own fountain that will dissolve as water drips through it over the duration of the show. It’s a piece, one imagines, that presents some difficulties when it comes to the subsequent tour? ‘I’ll film and photograph it,’ she laughs. ‘Then, hopefully, not everything will disappear and fragments of the original fountain will travel with some form of documentation.’ It might be a good idea to catch it while you can. GG
24 Woman’s Hour Craft Prize
WOMAN’S HOUR CRAFT PRIZE